The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

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Introduced by Juliane Römhild, with notes by Kate Macdonald

Review by Karen Langley

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Elizabeth von Arnim is probably best known nowadays for her novel The Enchanted April, a warm and delightful story in which a group of women take a holiday in Italy and experience its magic. Her Elizabeth… books, in which the thinly-disguised autobiographical title character spends time in her garden philosophising gently, are also popular. However, there was much more to von Arnim than these lighter-hearted works, and one such book has just been reissued by Handheld Press – The Caravaners, from 1909.

The author’s real name was Mary Annette Beauchamp, and she was a cousin of Katherine Mansfield. Australian-born but British, she was married to a Prussian, Count Henning von Arnim, generally accepted to be the ‘Man of Wrath’ in the ‘Elizabeth’ books. By necessity, therefore, Elizabeth spent much time in Germany, and her experience of that country, its customs and its people informs The Caravaners from the start.

The book is unusual amongst von Arnim’s output in that it is the only one narrated by a man – the insufferable, pompous, misogynistic and completely blinkered Baron Otto von Ottringel. Ostensibly, he’s producing a travelogue for friends and family, relating the highs and lows of a caravanning holiday he took with his young wife Edelgard in England. However, the Baron reveals much of himself as he writes, as well as giving us a peep into the outdoor life of England early in the last century. It’s very funny and very entertaining, but there are some really dark undertones.

Otto is extremely miserly, and has decided to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary as cheaply as possible with the caravanning holiday. The bizarre thing is that he’s been married twice; his first wife died, and he married Edelgard fairly promptly; and as he considers himself to have been married therefore for a total of 25 years between the two wives, he wants to celebrate (and presumably attempt to prise gifts out of friends and family). The idea of the caravan holiday is sold to him by his beautiful neighbour, Frau von Eckthum (for whom he has something of a passion); and so Otto and Edelgard set out for England believing the holiday will be idyllic. In fact, it is anything but…

Complications arise because of the hideous weather and the difficulties of travelling with an awkward caravan and horse; as well as the fact that most of fellow travellers on the holiday with them are people Otto cannot stand. These include Jellaby, a socialist; Frau von Eckthum’s sister, Mrs. Menzies-Legh who unfortunately has married an Englishman, also on board; and a couple of hapless young women known as the ‘fledglings’. There is also a friend of Jellaby’s who turns out to be an English nobleman and with whom Otto spends much time attempting to curry favour.

‘You Socialists,’ said I to Jellaby, next to whom I found I was expected to push, ‘do not believe in marriage, do you?’

‘We – don’t – believe – in – tyrants,’ he panted…

Otto is a bully and a domestic tyrant; used to completely dominating Edelgard and being waited upon hand and foot, he’s ill-prepared for the realities of an English caravanning holiday. From leading the horse pulling his caravan, to helping with cooking and foraging, Otto is outraged at the things he’s expected to do. And when you add in that Edelgard finds the atmosphere liberating and starts to develop a bit of a backbone, it soon becomes clear that Otto is in very different territory from his usual stomping ground. Inevitably, the plan to travel for a whole month will prove to be unsustainable – but will the events have any effect on the narrator?

The answer is, frankly, no. There are a number of strands running through the book, but the main one seemed to be the fact that Otto is utterly oblivious and constitutionally incapable of realising how ghastly he is and how the others cannot bear to be around him. He is indeed a monster; a truly misogynistic domestic tyrant, recognised as such by the other caravaners but completely unable to recognise it himself. He spends much of his time in pursuit of Frau von Eckthum, whom he imagines is in complete sympathy with him, content to utter a sympathetic “Oh!” to each pearl of wisdom with which he comes out. Even when it becomes clear that she can’t stand him and his pursuit of her is causing major issues, he fails to understand that he’s at fault; he is simply does not see it, and thinks overheard criticisms are aimed at someone else. And amusing as he can be to read, he is incredibly and unthinkingly cruel, even to the extent of making his wife give away her beloved dog.

Menzies-Legh got up and went away. It was characteristic of him that he seemed always to be doing that. I hardly ever joined him but he was reminded by my approach of something he ought to be doing and went away to do it. I mentioned this to Edelgard during the calm dividing one difference of opinion from other, and she said he never did that when she joined him.

Elizabeth von Arnim was highly critical of German militarism (and perhaps even the German character as she perceived it at the time); and she uses Otto to display all that she dislikes, from the aggressive militarism to a boorish lack of sensitivity with nature and the world around us. It’s worth recalling that, at the time the book was first published, England and Germany were viewing each other with a suspicion that would eventually lead to the First World War; and von Arnim makes it quite clear which side she prefers. However, The Caravaners is also a feminist novel; Otto’s views on women are quite shocking, and it’s a joy seeing Edelgard bloom in the company of the rest of the caravaners. Her husband is unable to deal with it, or indeed stop it, though he hopes that back in Germany the situation will revert to normal; we can only wish that it will not.

As with other Handheld editions I’ve read, The Caravaners comes with an excellent introduction, and useful notes at the back. It’s an entertaining and extremely funny book, as well as being evidence of von Arnim’s incredible skill as a writer. Taking Otto as her narrator and using him to betray himself, letting the reader see how things really are and what people really think of him, while he has no idea what is going on, is a real stroke of genius. The Caravaners is a tour de force of storytelling, as well as being exceptionally readable, wonderfully satirical and a devastating portrait of the Prussian character. Proof, if it was needed, that Elizabeth von Arnim really was a writer of no mean talent!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and has been on caravaning holidays in her youth (though none so interesting as this!)

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Caravaners (Handheld Press, 2019). 978-1912766123, 278pp, paperback.

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